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The museum and his building

«The future begins today»
The beginnings of a small modern museum

When the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca opened its doors for the first time in 1966, European culture—museums in particular—was going through a strange phase, difficult to put in words. Around that time, the director of a small museum of modern art in Holland, Willem Sandberg, attempted to sum up that mood in a brief text. Sandberg, who was the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the dark decade following the Second World War, had carried out, discretely and in isolation, an effort that received little publicity but that was extraordinarily appealing. He turned the Stedelijk into one of the few engaging and accessible modern art museums at the time, and his work would serve as a model in subsequent decades. In his text he expressed his awareness that he stood on a threshold between the baneful memories of the past on the one hand and audacious hope for the future on the other. The future he saw was one in which creative forces, going against the prevailing grain, "led by an instinctive current," unrelenting, with the alertness of sentinels, were determined "to push open the door to a new era" and seize that future to provide a home for the spirit of the society to come—a flexible, generous home built in the present that, with the cohesion of friends united, could offer a space for tomorrow. "If we want to continue to be ourselves, we will have to endlessly change. The future begins today; let us travel by its side."

The Americans emerged from World War II essentially unscathed on the home front, and they took the lead in the art world, especially with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The United States became a privileged point of reference because of the country's link to the most vigorous work being done in the arts, as well as because of its social influence and the incessant renewal of its museums. The reality of modern art museums in Europe was radically different. Even after the postwar period, into the 1960s, the damage caused during the conflict continued to be felt: the material destruction, the losses in collections, and the tarnished prestige due to ideological manipulations. European museums existed precariously, abandoned to themselves, wholly disoriented and, to make matters worse, unloved.

The case of Spain was even grimmer. By the early 1960s the Franco regime had abandoned its monolithic approach to culture that characterized it immediately following the Civil War, and the country began to recover a certain sense of normalcy in its cultural life, an improvement that was barely able to conceal the anomaly of a dictatorship. Nevertheless, those "years of penitence" (as Carlos Barral called them) continued to be marked by a stunted intellectual life, by the isolation of the arts from all contact with the world beyond Spain's borders, and, in the particular case of museums, by lethargy, unimaginativeness and bureaucratic inertia. No one paid attention to them; they remained dusty, antiquated, empty. Gaya Nuño, who knew the country's artistic patrimony well, was one of the few who dared to discuss out loud the litany of shortcomings: poverty of ideas, anachronistic installations, anemic budgets, legal chaos, the banishment of modernity, and, most serious of all, a total abandonment of their educational function. In the 1960s, in the Spain of the teleclubs (gatherings to watch TV when not everyone owned a set—the most significant effort in the modernization of education that the regime permitted), only four percent of high school students had ever visited a museum and only ten percent even expressed an interest.

Franco's regime indeed had promoted the occasional initiative to cover the clamorous failings in this regard and to disingenuously present them as evidence that museums were flourishing: institutions devoted monographically to third-rate artists of the twentieth century, such as the Museo Zabaleta (1960) in Quesada, Jaén; the museum devoted to Victorio Macho in the same house in which the sculptor lived in Toledo, inaugurated following the artist's death in 1966; or the Studio-Residence of Anglada Camarasa (1967) in Pollença, Mallorca—to mention only a few examples of the dozen or so hagiographic museums of this sort, which offered a deceptive image of artistic creativity in Spain and which seemed like institutions that were asleep, frozen in time and invalidated by their own tedium.

It is true that in the period of Christian-Democratic-inflected opening-up, some changes were felt. The regime came to understand that maintaining its monopoly over Spanish academia would be impossible and to recognize the inconvenience of its initial, rabidly anti-modernist stance and its view of the avant-garde as a conspiracy against the eternal values of Spanish art. The Spanish-American Biennales, which had been held since 1951, were, despite their conformist tone, an opportunity for young abstract artists to make a place for themselves. Above all, they attracted international media attention to the audacity of a new post-war Spanish avant-garde. Plans were also made to remodel the Museo de Arte Moderno, and its intelligent new director, Fernández del Amo, carried out policies of an unaccustomed caliber—indeed heroically, given the context. His efforts inspired great hope among intellectual circles, professionals, and devotees of the arts at the same time that they were received coolly or disdainfully by the governmental authorities. Before he was dismissed in 1958, he created "The Future Begins Today", a room for temporary exhibitions; organized classes on abstract art; exhibited works by the artists from the El Paso group and by American and European abstract artists; worked with young gallery owners; and on his own initiative sought out contacts with Miró, Picasso and other artists in exile in order to encourage the "escape from clandestinity" for those artists who were truly modern and to incorporate the accursed avant-garde, prohibited since the Civil War, into the museum's holdings. Little by little, Fernández del Amo's patience gathered a hopeful audience for his experiments, he instigated passionate debates, albeit among a minority, and he created a circle of enthusiasts—above all young people—that was small but fervent.

Even after Fernández del Amo's dismissal, there were small islands of modernity, such as MoMA's contribution of part of its collection to a large exhibition on the latest American painting, an event that, although it took place during the summer, felt like a true gift to the devotees of modern art and attained noteworthy recognition in the press, at such an uncertain time in the cultural life of Spain. Likewise, there was the exhibition of Picasso's prints in 1961, which to a degree served as compensation for the State's debt to the most important painter of his time after decades of condemning him. A small but constant crowd reacted in very different ways to the violence of this art that was so unfamiliar or even unknown in Spain and so difficult to understand—with curiosity, respect, disdain or disgust.

The history during these years of the foremost Spanish institution devoted to contemporary currents is exemplary of the policies of the Franco regime in the field of the arts. They reflected the apathy and stinginess with which the artistic life of the country was treated, hostility towards the foreign, and perhaps the most effective and the most silent form of censorship: the penury of the art world in Spain and the absence of its implementation in social discourse. It is true that some Spanish artists were officially promoted in international exhibitions and prestigious foreign galleries—Tàpies in New York and Paris, Oteiza and Chillida in the Milan Triennial Exhibition, Feito in the Biennale at Alexandria, as well as collective exhibitions in Fribourg, Basel, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. But that false veneer of artistic normalcy and freedom exhibited abroad turned to coolness and scorn from the government when the artists returned home. No exhibitions were organized, no works were acquired, no effort was made to publicize the new tendencies.

In effect, any initiative was destined for failure, for, as Fernández del Amo himself discovered, one very quickly fell into the absurd paradox of, on the one hand, responding to the nature of any museum devoted to modern art, whose very purpose is to divulge the most contemporary international creations, and, at the same time, finding oneself obliged to carry that work out almost clandestinely so as not to bother the Regime. For this reason, the plans for a museum of contemporary art in Barcelona also did not prosper. That museum's creation in 1960 was owing to the initiative of a group of Catalan artists who with some difficulty obtained a space (in the dome of the Coliseum cinema) and who, under the direction of Cirici Pellicer, assembled a collection based on their own works and assertively set forth on their path. Yet their efforts ended in frustration when the museum closed after three years, starved of funds and lacking any official support.

Throughout Europe, the years immediately prior to 1966 were, as far as museums of modern art were concerned, rather peculiar. Every which way it seemed that the institution of the museum had been marginalized in the reorganization of post-war society at the same time that a new sensibility was taking shape, one that had lost its taste for that old institution. It was evident that museums could no longer enjoy the undisputed supremacy that had made them the most important cultural machine of the nineteenth century. Yet no one seemed to feel the institution was in need of reform. Governments and the older generation (who had experienced the wars directly) focused their efforts on immediate needs: housing, education, infrastructure. The reconstruction of museums went forward at an exasperatingly slow pace. Worst of all, they continued to cling to anachronistic models and worn-out criteria. Meanwhile, the younger generations found greater interest in other cultural milieus in which they could exercise their creative spirit, including theater, literature and, above all, film. At the same time, disillusioned, they left museums aside, viewing them askance as places out of the past, dusty ivory towers, perfectly expendable: in short, having nothing to do with the contemporary understanding of culture or with the latest interests.

Indeed, this was true of the majority of museums of modern art, entrenched (in the best cases) in the cult of the first avant-gardes, from Impressionism to Cubism or Surrealism, but blind to the most recent trends in art, which was excluded from their galleries and which they did not disseminate. "How Modern is the Museum of Modern Art?" was the title of a manifesto signed by Ad Reinhardt and his friends in an effort to publicize their rebellion against the conservatism of MoMA, which they accused of having abandoned the mission that had made it the greatest of the modern museums between the wars. Therefore, already in the 1950s we find the beginnings of the revolt against the museums that would emerge in full force in the 1960s, leading to the rejection of the museum as a viable way of promoting contemporary art.

Despite the prevailing sense of discouragement, this suggested, however, that something was afoot. Proof could be found in these signs of rebelliousness (despite the general apathy) and in the emergence of theoretical reflection and reform-minded critique. The publication in 1966 of a pioneering text in the field of the sociology of museums announced the dissatisfaction felt by the most alert professionals: L'Amour de l'art, by the young French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which denounced the elitist orientation of the institution as something unacceptable in a society that championed democratic values. Valiant counter-current experiments began to appear that enjoyed stimulating public success, such as the documenta in Kassel, Germany, the first retrospective of international contemporary art after the war, created in a city that had been practically razed by Allied bombardments. Documenta was conceived as responding to German culture's obligation to the avant-garde tradition that the Nazis had curtailed with such violence. Some of its creators argued in vehemently unequivocal terms "that the time had finally come to put an end to backward-looking histories; for one can now only show that which is a part of our immediate present and its people," a conviction that began to quietly make way for itself and that also presided over the project undertaken by the group of abstract artists in Cuenca.

Very indicative of the prevailing state of things in that uncertain decade is the frequency with which sectors that were not directly linked to the world of professional museums undertook such initiatives—particularly artists themselves. There are abundant isolated examples of creators who gave their own collections a strongly individual stamp, who embarked on daring adventures with those collections, and who were the patrons of solitary endeavors with no official support. Jean Dubuffet's collection is well-known for its originality. Beginning in 1945, Dubuffet assembled a personal museum of art brut—a collection of five thousand works that he gathered in asylums, mental hospitals, and prisons—which he housed in a building in Paris, unable to show them publicly until, hoping to secure a definitive, public space for it, he offered the collection to the Swiss city of Lausanne, whose officials prepared an old eighteenth-century castle that finally opened in 1971. An example from the other side of the Atlantic is the project undertaken by the American Donald Judd (one of the protagonists of the Minimalist movement) in New York in 1968. Obsessed by a similar concern—the shabbiness and inadequacy with which the American museums, in their excessive preoccupation with monetary success, treated artists' work and their deplorable taste in displaying those works—he installed in a large loft in the SoHo neighborhood a stable exhibition of artists of his generation, works of his own and by sculptors he admired. As he himself indicated, it was an alternative to a museum, more natural and cheaper—and less pompous.

All of these initiatives and innovative experiments arrived in Spain only as rumors. It is quite true that there was no coherent policy nor was there any kind of a network of institutions devoted to contemporary art, as is patent in the case of the modern art museum in Madrid or the short-lived one in Barcelona; nevertheless, it is important not to forget (once more in the history of Spanish museums) the role played by a small number of enterprising individuals driven by the sole desire to disseminate art in a society that was increasingly hungry for knowledge.

The fact is that here, in the mid-sixties, the most advanced creative forces held out hope for a future that began to be glimpsed. Juan Benet shrewdly recognized this when he explained the unique situation that emerged in Spanish culture even before the dictatorship disappeared: "it began to be post-Francoist, experiencing a kind of clandestine democracy, one that had not yet come into official existence"; people acted as if there were no obstacles or censorship, so that the world of artists and intellectuals took a new path and adopted new attitudes, "looking forward, obeying no other rules than their own." That determination to prepare the future, subject to none but their own sense of moral duty, is what explains the resolve with which certain adventuresome souls, in favor of taking risks and comfortable with making mistakes, challenged the force of gravity and decided at a meal one night in 1963 to finally undertake a project they had been toying with for several months.

Every great project begins that way: by taking on uncertain commitments. In this case, the point of departure was an excellent collection of Spanish art by the youngest generation of artists. Its owner and the principal promoter of the project was Fernando Zóbel, a painter who was born in the Philippines and who trained at Harvard, an experience that instilled in him a keen sense of responsibility and rigor. In 1955 he began his travels in Europe and Spain until he settled definitively in this country in 1961. He was very well-informed about the tendencies in art in the 1950s, he was a passionate collector and a lover of museums. In fact, before his arrival in Madrid he had been the honorary director of the Ateneo Art Gallery, a modern art museum at the Ateneo de Manila University. There he had begun his personal collection, initially comprised of stamps, coins, rare books, paintings and Chinese porcelain of extraordinary quality. His contact with Spanish artists would be fundamental in his future. He met Rueda in 1955, and soon thereafter Saura, Chirino, and Sempere, who returned to Spain in 1960. He met Torner in 1962 and Guerrero (whose visits were increasingly prolonged) in 1964. Zóbel, Rueda and Torner became particularly close, encouraged by their travels to Paris, their shared exhibition projects in galleries such as Biosca, Juana Mordó and Juana de Aizpuru, and their visits to the Venice Biennale in 1960 and 1962 and to various exhibitions in Basel, Munich and the Tate Gallery in London.

As soon as he arrived in Europe, Zóbel began his collection of Spanish art, which he undertook as a kind of moral obligation, aware of the beauty and aesthetic value of what was then still a recent trend (abstraction) and conscious of the merits of the new generation of artists working in the 1950s in whose work he recognized quality comparable to that of the Art Informel of other contemporary European artists or that of the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Although these Spanish artists had received a warm welcome abroad, they did not enjoy the national recognition they deserved. In 1960, aware of the unstoppable growth of his collection, Zóbel began to consider how he might find a suitable place to present these works publicly and in a manner worthy of their quality. Having ruled out Madrid, in the winter of 1962 he made several trips to Toledo in search of an adequate space. It was not until June 1963, however, when, in a now famous dinner at which Sempere and Torner, among others, were also present, the latter suggested the possibility of remodeling a group of buildings that dated to the Middle Ages in the old part of Cuenca, above the cliffs, for which as yet no use had been devised. (Torner lived in the city and was related to the man who served as mayor at the time.)

A visit to Cuenca, where Zóbel learned that the municipal government was willing to transfer ownership of the buildings, sparked his enthusiasm. He immediately decided to begin work on opening a museum of abstract art in this small city in the middle of Castile. From that point on, the three painters seized hold of their ideal with the vehemence and the selflessness that would always characterize this unwonted enterprise. They were joined intermittently by other artists, such as Antonio Lorenzo.

The group discovered a mysterious affinity for their artistic temperament in this city—one that had periodically resurfaced there over the course of several centuries only to be forgotten again. Cuenca appears, recollected or invented as a hallucination, in the imagination of a writer like Alejo Carpentier, who confessed to having dreamed of the hanging city without ever having seen it, as a result of reading Pío Baroja, who described it in Los recursos de la astucia as a group of "yellowish houses, some as tall as ten stories, with thick crumbling walls, situated atop the bare rock cliffs of the river gorge, dotted with shrubs, and hanging over the precipice, with high, jutting balconies and narrow windows that produce a feeling of vertigo." Or Miguel de Unamuno, who spoke of "disemboweled houses, suspended over the abyss ." Or García Lorca, who recalled its crevices, its hawthorn bushes and the transparent air of the Enchanted City. Or Hemingway, who visited the town in the 1950s, accompanied by Giulio Einaudi and Carlos Barral. Cuenca also attracted painters like Wilfredo Lam and, later, Vieira da Silva. Above all, the city has been eulogized by the poets, from Luis de Góngora and Fray Luis de León in the Golden Age to Gerardo Diego in the Modern. Diego described this narrow stretch of the Huécar River running past its escarpments ("I have never seen a river as intimate"), as an almost cosmogonic refuge for creativity: "Here is Creation:/ here, joined together,/ the birth of the air,/ the will of stone." Assuredly, the way in which Cuenca rises above the landscape, defying the laws of gravity and weight, nestled in the rock-face, is what convinced Zóbel to settle in this old city with its air of rebelliousness—a quality that matched the challenge of his project so well.

The Hanging Houses, already inhabited in the fifteenth century, constituted a highly unique group of buildings whose original date of construction has not been determined. Nor are the uses they were put to fully known, although until the middle of the eighteenth century they housed the municipal government. They were part of a collection of historic buildings, "a hanging city," whose structures seemed to dangle above the chasm thanks to a unique system based on a framework of beams, called almojayas. In 1927, theatrical cantilevered balconies were built onto the old building, accentuating the dramatic effect of the house suspended above the river gorge. This addition, however, was not completed, and the building was left in ruins until in the 1950s a new effort to restore it was undertaken, work that fell to the local architects Fernando Barja and Francisco León Meler. This restoration coincided with Zóbel's project for a museum.

The building as such would come to play a decisive role in the museum's character: one of its sources of appeal would be an idea that up to that point had not been fully explored, namely, the coexistence of the old and the new—the rustic physiognomy of the large house and the abstract art displayed within. It is true that the prospect of merging the two very distinct social spaces of the "house" and the "museum" into a single space presented certain practical difficulties, such as the small scale of the interiors, problems in moving large groups of visitors, or issues pertaining to infrastructure. For this reason, the museum's three promoters focused their efforts on creating a harmonious relationship in which the building's original structure and features did not impede the proper contemplation of the works on display. They did not want an overwhelming institutional building or the architectural solemnity that is so often associated with the idea of the "museum," but rather a dignified, restrained space. The small floor plan with its intricate passageways and the narrow staircases suitable for a domestic residence was preserved, as were, to a large extent, the original structure of the rooms with their low ceilings and compact volumes. The original sources of exterior light were also maintained, now combined with artificial lighting.

Photo of inauguration of the museum
Inauguration of the museum, 1 July 1966.
Mesón Casas Colgadas.
Photo: Fernando Nuño

On 30 June 1966, an informal, congenial celebration—with toasts of champagne and tapas of prawns—marked, finally, the inauguration of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. A small part of the collection, some forty works, was installed, and the first catalogue, with photographs by Fernando Nuño, was published. In this presentation the various currents of abstraction were represented (understood in a not very dogmatic sense): it ranged from the highly rational constructivist order of Néstor Basterrechea to the figurative expressionism of Saura, including along the way lyrical artists like Zóbel himself, great colorists like Guerrero, devotees of black like Lucio Muñoz, those who cultivated calligraphy like Mompó, and representatives of radical materialism such as Millares and Tàpies.

The result could not have been more radically unlike what one would expect of a museum, something that was even more unprecedented in the tedious reality of Spain. Everything was new: to begin with, the domestic scale of the museum, half-way between the privacy of a collector's home and the neutral atmosphere of a museum open to the public. The enveloping architecture, so different from the large galleries and spaces in which to wander characteristic of traditional museums, the irregular routes through various levels and rooms were perfectly in tune with the small, delightful discoveries afforded the curious visitor. Rothko, whose work had so impressed Zóbel when he was in America, was wont to say that he preferred to view his paintings in homes rather than large spaces where they ran the risk of becoming reduced to the comparative scale of a postage stamp: "I paint big to be intimate." That was also one of this museum's most sought-after conditions—to flee monumentality and to preserve intact the effect of a private space in which the viewer could more easily establish a corporeal, intimate relationship with the collection, a familiar kind of dialogue with the works, without intermediaries or crutches.

Among the museum's innovative qualities was also the fact that it was conceived, designed and constructed by artists, free of the meddling of the usual sort of curator-bureaucrat. Cuenca was, above all, dreamed up among friends, "a common interest": in a team inspired by generosity and a collaborative spirit, Zóbel directed the museum and the organization of its contents, Torner assumed the co-directorship, Gerardo Rueda was named chief curator, and Antonio Lorenzo, Sempere and Fernando Nuño served as consultants. That valiant, highly personal dimension of the museum gave it its "tone," which oscillated with naturalness between the predominance of its owner's tastes and a complete perspective of an artistic tendency. This was one of the museum's charms, a gamble in the precarious terrain of the subjective, as a product of private enthusiasms. After all, as Harald Szeemann argued around the same time when he was but a young curator in a small Swiss museum, "in art, only that which is unilaterally subjective will, some day, be able to be objectively judged." The creation of the museum, as has been already remarked, belonged to a certain national tradition begun in the first decades of the twentieth century, when some of the best museums in the Peninsula emerged not out of official initiatives but rather from the efforts and generosity of private collectors who set out to found their own museums, built around personal preferences not subject to any other requirement than the mere desire to collect, in which the quantity and quality of the holdings are measured only by the pleasure they afford their owner. These institutions stand apart, for, as Walter Benjamin once remarked, while in the great museums full of masterpieces and irreplaceable works "we encounter the culture of the past in sumptuous holiday dress," in private collections "history is presented in shabby workaday clothes." Yet that apparent modesty, of which the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español is one of the best examples, also has its appeal. In contrast to the confusion of many public institutions in which collections are amassed without anyone's having sought them out, such projects as this one respond to programs that are more methodical and coherent and almost always more daring than the typical conservatism of museums—and, undoubtedly, fundamentally more intelligent.

Photo: Eric Schaal
A gathering of friends, including
Fernando Zóbel, Gerardo Delgado,
Gustavo Torner and José Guerrero,
in Torner's home in Cuenca, 1966.
Photo: Eric Schaal.
Courtesy Eric Schaal Estate

Last but not least among the museum's merits is a characteristic that also entailed the most unforeseeable risks, namely, its conception as a museum that was "only contemporary." As Gerardo Rueda himself recalled, the group was not so much concerned with the future prospects of abstract art, nor even whether it truly deserved a museum of its own. Of course, implicitly they planned to protect and pay homage to the pre-war Spanish avant-garde (Picasso, Gris, Miró), to which they felt in many ways indebted, but they did not yield to the temptation to seek legitimacy in antecedents or historical points of reference; rather, they chose to devote the institution exclusively to the most recent generation of artists. The museum's installations were thus organized around these principles. Zóbel's familiarity with museums, galleries and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic was extensive and well-documented, and he applied this knowledge to the requirements of his own museum, combining them with his taste for the essential. This preference of Zóbel's is reflected in his Cuaderno de apuntes, or Notebook, in which he reveals his fondness for clarity, his purist ideas about the soothing quality of painting—what painters refer to as "Matisse's armchair"— and his admiration for concise, elegant expression that nevertheless loses none of its intensity.

Responsibility for designing the interior was handed to Gustavo Torner, who, with Rueda's collaboration and independently of the quality of the collection, converted the museum into a small jewel in its own right. The presentation of the works basically did away with historicizing or chronological criteria and thus set aside the model other museums routinely followed, since that approach seemed to have exhausted itself as an organizing principle for a modern museum. They did not seek to demonstrate absolute truths or unquestionable historical certainties with this space. Nor did they insist on its didactic or explanatory role; they avoided imposing any informative orientation beyond the bare essentials. Free of all rhetoric and dogmatism, the museum was nevertheless, as Torner himself wrote, full of "intention." The painter was keenly aware that there was no such thing as an innocently natural approach to exhibiting art. The decision to hang a painting was a complex interpretive act behind which lay meanings and values. Choices made in displaying a work involved a kind of moral commitment, an act of perception, a critical attitude, aesthetic judgement.

In Cuenca, the conditions for exhibiting the art—that is, the attention to architecture, light and the specific qualities of the space—were a foremost concern to the extent that it became an aspect consubstantial with the works on display. It was a matter of encouraging experiences based on aesthetic intensity and the meditative contemplation of images, in which pleasure counted for more than knowledge. Zóbel was very familiar with Asian cultures, with which he himself identified, and, according to Miguel Bonet, he was moved by the Zen garden in the Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto, which he had seen during a visit to Japan in 1956. Those same silent, serenely restrained forms were what he sought to evoke in the rooms in the museum, allowing the visitor to confront the challenge of understanding a work equipped only with his or her own sensibilities.

This orientation required the physical and aesthetic isolation of the works, which, rather than their creators, became the true heroes of the museum. Placed at a distance from each other and provided with specific lighting according to the formal and material qualities of each work, they were hung on walls whose texture and tone were observed with the most extreme care. The objective was to allow the viewer moving through the various rooms to savor each individual work at the same time that a dialogue could be established between certain works owing to their relative proximity.

Standing in counterpoint to that warm, luminous intimacy, that metaphysics of interior spaces, is the presence of the landscape outside. Its craggy roughness slips in through the windows and is one of the secrets of the sense of austere transcendence one carries away from a visit to the museum. This singular feature we find in other European experiments from around the same time (such as the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in far-off Copenhagen, which, situated in woods on the Baltic likewise seeks to fuse aesthetics with the experience of nature), and it was to a large extent a projection of the artistic sensibilities of this group of painters. It allowed them to join together the "place" and the "program" in a very particular continuity. The serene drama of the museum's surroundings finds an immediate echo, for example, in the material universe of Torner's landscapes, which evoke the bare hills of the countryside under a leaden sky, a world he knew firsthand as a forestry engineer. Meanwhile, the exploration of the materiality of relief which Rueda undertook in the midst of creating the museum, with objects like moldings, frames, rattan, and matchboxes, points likewise to the restrained and melancholy aspect of the rocky protuberances one catches sight of through the windows.

The fact that the museum aimed to be something more than a museum, without freezing the collection in that eternalizing limbo that many of its fellow institutions had become, is apparent in its devotion to a parallel activity: the publication of prints, undertaken even before the center was inaugurated. Three years earlier, in 1963, the "pre-museum" printed a serigraph by César Manrique and the following year it continued that effort with prints by Millares, Mompó, Rueda and Sempere. On the occasion of the opening and thanks to a generous anonymous gift, the museum was able to include a workshop for intaglio printmaking available to artists, directed by Abel Martín and Eusebio Sempere, who had learned the technique in Paris with the Cuban painter Wifredo Arcay. In addition to what that department signified for the dissemination of art in Spain and the furtherance of printmaking, it also represented a way of understanding a museum as a living organism for art. It thus served to impel the effervescent artistic life of this small provincial capital, and, because of its magnetism, the museum contributed to Cuenca's emergence as a cosmopolitan place open to the world.

This was one of the secrets of the museum's good reputation. It was not only one of the most daring and prestigious private collections of contemporary art. It was also responsible for having accomplished something much more difficult: building a strong sense of provincial identity on intensely cosmopolitan foundations. Owing to this rare conjunction of disparate qualities, the museum attained its unique international celebrity. It became a "discovery" that awakened the sympathy and curiosity of artists, critics and museum directors in Europe and America, eager to see not only the collection and its installation in the Hanging Houses but also the artistic ambience of a city of painters. Newspapers with a large circulation and specialized journals alike extolled the works on display as well as the unprecedented museum conceived as a work of art in itself. When Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA, visited the museum in 1967, he described it as "the most beautiful small museum in the world."


María Bolaños. En La ciudad abstracta, 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006.